Of the many things Barack Obama seems to have lost so spectacularly in recent months—his political aura, his rhetorical fluency, the support of independents, the worship of progressives—the most striking loss has been that of his sex appeal.
Not so long ago, Obama’s sex appeal lay at, or near, the top of a list of his attributes that turned America on. In some quarters, his effect was almost orgasmic, as seen in this mash-note in The Nation from August 2008, which describes a man “so cool he’s hot, a centrifugal force commanding attention so ruthlessly that it appeared effortless, reducing everyone around him to a sidekick, and the girls in the front rows to jelly.”
With presidential impotence so plain to behold, no amount of political Viagra could have done the trick.
My own editor wrote of Obama’s “heat quotient”; Newsweek (at odds with the fact that Captain Kirk is the one that women have really fancied) remarked that he was a “Spock with global sex appeal”; and Judith Warner gushed, in The New York Times, about how many American women “were dreaming about sex with the president.” Her column is a classic of emetic oversharing, and begins with the lines, “The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs…” (Obama isn’t the first man in the White House to have sparked an erotic-dream epidemic: Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, famously, kept Freudian analysts busy for months.)
The lexical frottage from the pundit class was matched by some openly sexual support on YouTube and other places, expressed by the likes of “ Obama Girl,” who appeared to incarnate, only more raunchily, the soft-core longings of many American women, delighted at this unexpected (and delicious) confluence of politics and sex. I heard women refer to Obama, after his election, as the “Hunk in Chief.”
• Peter Beinart: Obama’s Foreign Policy Has Failed Americans have long demanded manliness of their presidents, but it has tended to be a manliness of a non-sexual sort. Ronald Reagan, in many ways, epitomized this. If there was an exaggerated quality to his ruggedness, it was perhaps a fitting overcompensation, given the unusually unmanly president who’d preceded him—and an overcompensation, also, for his advanced age. (He dyed his hair black to appear more vital.)
Ford, Nixon, LBJ, Ike, Truman—even the two Bushes—to name other postwar presidents, all count as Real Men in one way or another. Clinton and John F. Kennedy, however, have been the only two postwar presidents apart from Obama whose persona has had an indisputably sexual component—Kennedy’s sleekly glamorous, Clinton’s cheerily priapic. Obama’s sex appeal, while it lasted, was more cerebral, languid, unconventional—and complex, too, in that it was hard to demarcate his sex appeal from his political aura. In other words, he was erotic, not merely sexy. There was something about him that was both clean-cut and revolutionary; and it was no doubt electrifying that many millions of American women were so openly adoring of a black man.
All that steaminess has come to an ignominious end. In office, as his political aura diminished, so did his sexual magnetism. In fact, it was at about the time when the Gulf of Mexico first came to be awash in BP oil that the rig of Obama’s sex appeal collapsed, too. With presidential impotence so plain to behold, no amount of political Viagra could have done the trick.
None of this would be worth a moment’s conversation had Obama not carried so much political support by dint of his sex appeal, which was an amalgam of his youth, his seeming dynamism, his idealism (always carefully curated, but always palpable), and his cinematic visual imagery—etching his chin up at a camera, eyes far away; long, lean, loping strides; basketball; bare chest on beach. The great downside of all that came when he had to fill the seductive, pulse-quickening profile with presidential substance. The real world has quarried away at him in the form of Iran, BP, North Korea, Israel, Afghanistan, the economy, the Tea Party, and the like. The result has not been “hot.” It’s been room temperature.
Twenty months into office, Obama stands exposed as a floundering Man, not a panacea-laden Superman. Even his relationship with his wife has hurt his sex appeal: Uxorious men are never sexy for long.
The promise of “otherness” and change that had made Obama so sexy to so many stands shorn of its magic. He has tried to do too much, and as a result has done too little well: And failure is not sexy. He has given speech after speech to a restless, increasingly irritated nation, like a man trying to “talk” about the relationship when a girl wants to be ravaged; he has been a preachy, professorial windbag—in a word, charmless. This hasn’t merely diminished his sex appeal; it has killed it stone dead. Obama now looks more like tank-commander Dukakis than the George Clooney of our national narrative…
…Which leaves America without a single politician of stature with any sex appeal at all. It’s enough to make one weep.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)